Provost Alan Brinkley, 2009 “Making A Difference” Service Award Recipient
There’s an old story told about the academic who comes to a fork in the road and sees two street signs, one flashing, “Paradise, Turn Left,” and the other, “Lecture About Paradise, Turn Right.” The story goes that the academic takes the road to the right.
Not so Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History, winner of the 1983 National Book Award (for his Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression), author of numerous other books and scores of articles primarily about 20th century American history, but including the highly-regarded standard American History: A Survey, now in its eleventh edition, regular contributor to many periodicals, including The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, Time and Newsweek, winner of the 1987 Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Award at Harvard and the 2003 Columbia Great Teaching Award, teacher at Harvard, MIT, CUNY Graduate Center, Princeton, Oxford, University of Torino, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociale, former chair the Columbia History Department, recipient of countless fellowships and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Century Foundation. With that intensely productive career as a public intellectual, Mr. Brinkley six years ago took command, at Lee Bollinger’s request, as Columbia’s twentieth Provost – its chief academic officer – switching in some respects, albeit temporarily, from the perch of the scholar/teacher to that of actor on the nation’s intellectual stage.
In doing so, he says, “I found myself making decisions that affect many more people than the decisions I typically made as a faculty member. In the process, I had to develop a different sort of skill set.” Institutions like Columbia are enormously complicated, layered organisms. “There is never a point when anyone can know everything that is going on here,” he notes as he glances out of his Low Library window at a slice of the campus.
Mr. Brinkley believes that the university’s broad, traditional mission – that of teaching, research and public service – has not changed in any fundamental respect for a long time, but how it serves that mission has changed. “The work carried on at Community Impact, both in direct benefit to those served and in service leadership for our students, represents a tremendous change from how things were when I was at college in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is one of the things that makes me most proud of our students and the University. The world has changed for the better in that regard.” And so he has worked to assist CI with a fellowship program to which the University contributes funds and resources, allowing CI to support student interns, fellows and extra-curricular service learning projects.
“It’s really the students who have taken the lead in the University’s increasing involvement in service,” Mr. Brinkley says, citing the commitment made and satisfaction earned by his own daughter, a high school student, who has invested herself in community service in ways Mr. Brinkley thinks few young people did when he was his daughter’s age. “Last fall, we hosted the ServiceNation Presidential Candidates’ Forum here, in which Senator McCain and then Senator Obama participated. It had a big impact among many constituencies in Morningside Heights. There is a growing recognition of the role of service and service leadership in the university’s life – not as a requirement, but as an important, purposeful part of what we offer to our students and our community.”
Our choices at CI have never been between paradise and lectures about paradise; our mission advances through the engagement of nearly a thousand staff and student volunteers working to feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate the curious, and enjoy the satisfaction that that effort should bring. Provost Brinkley has won our admiration and affection for helping to make us become more worthy of the great cause in which we are engaged.